Category Archives: theater

The SPB Q: Grad Chapter: Lisa B. Thompson

lisa thompson march 2010 headshot copyI met Lisa B. Thompson when she was at Harvard in 2010-11 as a fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute. We’d already “met” on Facebook, but meeting her in person was an automatic game-changer. Her generous spirit and ferociously funny personality made many a lunch or coffee date into an uproariously fun and educational event. I can’t walk by Chipotle these days and not think of her smile, her candor, her fierceness—and her love of burritos. Lisa’s become a wonderful friend and ally in this crazy world of academia, but she’s also become one of the peeps I look up to most. And as great as I think she is, it was during a heartfelt salute to her grad school mentor Richard Yarborough, for whom the American Studies Association’s Minority Scholars Committee named it’s new mentoring award, that I really saw the kind of soul and generosity Lisa brings to the academic world. She held forth in an early morning room crowded with scholars of all levels, and kept us laughing and tearing up as she expressed the love and respect she has not just for Yarborough but for mentoring as an important and viable project.

I think I identify with Lisa so much because she is the epitome of the scholar/artist. (The first time I’d actually heard her name was as the author of Single Black Female, her funny, touching, highly-regarded play, which was the toast of NYC in the summer of 2006. I can still remember everyone going to see it, and talking about it.) Her devotion to scholarly excellence—as a writer, professor and mentor—doesn’t take a backseat to her ambitions as a creative writer, and she moves smoothly between the two worlds with ease, balancing a remarkable lack of self-importance with a huge dose of self-assurance that makes her not just the perfect role model for peeps who are trying to do the same, but also a better cultural producer in both fields. Her first academic book, Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class— published by University of Illinois Press in 2009 and called “complex and nuanced” by E. Patrick Johnson and “path-breaking” by Valerie Smith—looks at representations and negotiations of black female sexuality in American popular culture, film, and literature, and received honorable mention for the National Women’s Studies Association’s Gloria E. Anzaldua Book Prize, 2010. Single Black Female, which has been performed around the country and was a 2004 nominee for LA Weekly’s Theater Award for Best Comedy, was recently published by the theatrical giant Samuel French. Lisa recently left SUNY Albany for  University of Texas, Austin, where she’s an Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, and where she seems to be flourishing and enjoying life, if her Facebook statuses and late-night texts are any indication. She also has one of the best kids in the game. Read her work if you haven’t; see her play if it’s ever in your neck of the woods…There’s a new one coming soon. You’ll know about it cause I’ll be blogging, tweeting, and status-messaging about it with the quickness. Hope you enjoy her SPB Q!

Name:

Lisa B. Thompson. My trailblazing grandmother chose my middle name so I always use my initial in honor of her.

Hometown:     

San Francisco, California. Yes, I’m a West coast sista. And no, you better not call it Frisco!

Grad School/Year:

Stanford University, Modern Thought & Literature, 2000

Dissertation/Book Title:

Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class (2009)

Favorite book:

I’m an old school bookworm so I cannot select just one favorite text. There are beloved books from each era of my life. During my girlhood Ezra Jack Keats’s Snowy Day sparked my imagination and warmed my heart. When I was a teen, reading Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow was enuf changed the shape of the universe for me. I carried it around all the time and performed the monologues for my girlfriends. During college I saw George Wolfe’s Colored Museum and felt assured that there was a place for my quirky, nerdy, irreverent, comic sensibility in the world.

Favorite author:

Toni Morrison! Sula Peace, Frank Money, Pecola Breedlove, Bill Cosey, Jadine Childs and Milkman Dead? Such unforgettable characters! I also deeply appreciate her work as an editor and public intellectual.

Favorite movie:

I’m cheating again by picking two. I love Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger. His rendering of black Los Angeles is so rich and layered. I pray he releases it on DVD soon so I can finally dispose of my VCR! I’m also a huge fan of the Bette Davis classic All About Eve. I’ve probably watched it more than any other movie. It’s about the intricacies of female friendships and the backstage drama in the theatre world, so what’s not to love?

Favorite song:

I absolutely adore the Duke Ellington masterpiece “In a Sentimental Mood.”

Academic text(s) that most influences your work:

Patricia J. Williams’s Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of Race and Rights; Glenda Carpio’s Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor and the Fictions of Slavery; Farah Jasmine Griffin’s Who Set you Flowin?’: The African American Migration Narrative; Daphne Brooks’s Bodies in Dissent:  Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910 and Valerie Smith’s Not Just Race, Not Just Gender: Black Feminist Readings. I’m inspired by dazzling ideas expressed in gorgeous language.

Academic(s) who most influences your work:

I had the pleasure of working with Kimberlé Crenshaw, Robin D. G. Kelly, Valerie Smith, and Richard Yarborough as an undergraduate and Masters student at UCLA. They showed me it’s possible to enjoy an impressive academic career while also mentoring the next generation of scholars. I also cherish my time at Stanford. I credit my graduate school colleagues Darieck Scott, Meta DuEwa Jones, Richard Benjamin, Diana Paulin, Lawrence Jackson, Nicole Fleetwood and Asale Ajani for creating such a rich environment to learn, think and write.

Academic High:

Spending my sabbatical as a fellow at Harvard’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research was my career high. I call it my magical year in Cambridge. I conducted research for my current book project on contemporary African American theatre, and Colman Domingo directed a staged reading of my new comedy Mamalogues at the Hiphop Archive.

Life High:

Without a doubt giving birth to my son in 2005 is my greatest moment. I still can’t believe that my play Single Black Female debuted off-Broadway six months later.  It was like having twins! He’s my Nigerian American Prince. Although being a “momademic” presents numerous challenges, there is simply nothing that gratifies my soul more than being his mother.

You’re on a desert island and can only have 5 CDs/books/ or DVDs shipped in to you. What are they?

I’d take the entire Mad Men series—I never tire of watching that show. My library would consist of a massive volume of poetry such as The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Stevie Wonder’s Greatest Hits and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill would provide my island soundtrack.

Your favorite quote:

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Although I would revise that Frederick Douglass quote a bit to say broken people. Can you imagine a society where there are only strong children? Perhaps that shouldn’t be the goal because great wisdom comes from understanding your particular brokenness and using it to shape your journey and better the world.

Guilty pleasure:

Anyone who knows me knows that my weakness is dessert. I’m talking peach cobbler, oatmeal cookies, pecan pie, brownies, red velvet cake, apple pie á la mode . . . There is nothing better than devouring a decadent dessert while taking in a good movie. That’s my idea of heaven.

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Rant #532: Lions and Tigers and New Movie Musicals…Oh My!?

Can anyone tell me why musicals (or movies with music) are suddenly all the rage in Hollywood? Or why so many of the ones in production or heading that way are remakes, re-treads, re-imaginings? Just in the past week I’ve heard that Clint Eastwood wants to direct Beyonce in a remake of A Star is Born. And Bryan Singer wants to make a biopic of legendary Broadway and film director/choreographer Bob Fosse. And last but not least, Will Smith and Jay-Z want to co-produce a new version of Annie starring Willow Smith. (I wonder how Daddy Warbucks feels about all that hair-whipping, considering his bald state of affairs.) Is it the success of American Idol that’s created this musical interest? Is it the success of GLEE? High School Musical? What has made the musical such a newly popular form? When did all these musical fans (if they are fans that is, and not just cynical showmen trying to get on a bandwagon—see what I did there?) come out of the closet? I mean, I remember when the movie musical was anathema in Hollywood, other than maybe Blake Edwards letting his wife Julie Andrews sing in a coupla flicks (and of course, if you’re gonna put the bell-toned Julie in a movie, you damn well better let her sing and create something as entertaining as Victor/Victoria!) or Disney churning out animated musicals (not that we knew most of them would turn up on Broadway in a reverse-maneuver of the old days when a hit show got the big studio treatment). Even if they seemed to be sorta successful again after the success of Chicago (an over-rated, dazzingly miscast version of a brilliant Broadway musical in my opinion), the versions of Rent, The Producers, and Dreamgirls alone should have educated Hollywood that you just can’t give over production/direction of a musical to just anybody! I mean, what in Clint Eastwood’s arguably great directorial history speaks to his ability to direct a big soapy melodramatic music film? Bird? I think not. This choice sorta reminds me of Sidney Lumet directing The Wiz: as great a director as Lumet was, he had a leaden hand creating the magic and suspension of disbelief needed to create the world of that show. And as for a biopic of the late Bob Fosse, who’s seen a return to popularity (if he ever lost it, that is) after so much of his choreographic style has turned up in music videos: he doesn’t need a biopic after the lasting images and sounds of All the Jazz, his brilliant, darkly cynical, semi-autobiographical rumination of sex, death, love and jazz hands. Not even directed by the talented Singer, unless he wants to do something way outré like perhaps making Fosse a superhero or the second coming of Keyser Söze.  I also think finding contemporary talent to represent all the great entertainers who populated Fosse’s life—Leland Palmer, Liza Minnelli (amazing here in Cabaret), Ben Vereen (working it here in All That Jazz), Ann Reinking, Gwen Verdon (stunning here as Lola in Damn Yankees), Chita Rivera, among them—would be next to impossible today. The new Annie might be the closest thing to a good idea in this mix, as Annie’s a sorta timelessly adaptable story that might benefit from an urbanizing like the original Broadway Wiz or the updating I hear Debbie Allen gave to Oliver Twist, but the idea of Jay-Z potentially adding to or writing new music for Annie’s beautifully theatrical score. I won’t even touch that…Okay I will, and I’ll be quick: Jay’s talented but sampling “Hard Knock Life” does not a musical make.

Here’s the thing: to make a musical, one needs first a sense of rhythm, the kind of rhythm that understands that the heightened reality of bursting into song and dance to express inchoate emotion demands imagination in the combining of elements like music, movement and narrative momentum. And none of these directors/producers seem to me to be prepared to dance that tango or name that tune. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe I shouldn’t complain until I see the work on the screen. But I do know this: if any of these musicals feel as stiff as Dreamgirls or as inert as Rent or as silly as The Producers, I’ll always blame the rise of Rob Marshall: how he managed to make Nine, a play about film, even more boring on film that it was on stage is beyond me.

That said: here are some of my favorite movie musicals, adapted from Broadway or created from scratch, in no particular order…some of them are flawed yes, but none of them fail on the level of musical/dramatic/narrative integration (scenes from a few of them are below, too; compare any of that Fosse staging or Jerome Robbins choreography to Rob Marshall’s work in Chicago. Or Gene Kelly’s tap dancing to Richard Gere’s in the same flick. Or the narrative work done by the music and staging to Chris Columbus’s Rent):

Cabaret


Singin’ in the Rain

West Side Story


The Bandwagon

On the Town

Funny Girl

Grease

Cabin in the Sky

An American In Paris

The Wizard of Oz

Fame

The Sound of Music

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Links and Hijinks: Ellen, Anne Rice, Dexter, Potboilers and More…

  • The Baby and the Bathwater: Anyone who saw the 4th season of Dexter knows how much the game changed—horribly so. The trailer for the new season looks fantastic…and way different than any other season of the great Showtime show about a serial killer and the masks we all wear. Nikki Finke’s Deadline has the trailer here.
  • Pulp F(r)ictions: As someone (and a soon-to-be-academic) who really wanted his novel (coming out next year, haha) to be page-turning thrill ride, who really wanted to create an accessible, fun book that appealed to many peeps and (potentially) not just the other PhDs that I know, I was fascinated by this academic’s interestingly defensive defense of the fun and pleasures of what she calls “trashy paperbacks.” Of course, one woman’s trash is another woman’s flash. And as I’ve said before, trash, obviously, is in the taste of the beholder…but I love a good high/low culture debate with my morning coffee, don’t you?
  • Brotherly Love: And finally, I just had to post this news link. It intrigues me on so many levels: thinking about how rape shield laws operate in different geographical locations; how some news orgs cover stories in interesting ways–in this case, the Alabama network obviously re-cut a second version (see vids below); that age-old  race, gender, sexuality and class “intersection” that arises when we think about public representations of black folks; and finally, why do some vids “go viral” and others don’t? Antoine Dodson, step up for your close-up:

{Thank you to Crystal Durant, teacher/blogger/dope DJ, for pointing out the above vids…you can catch her funny  bi-weekly pop culture rants at Forcesofgeek.com}

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The Blacker the Broadway, The Sweeter the Theater…or the Box Office?

Will & Jada as Stanley & Stella???

The last few seasons in New York legit theater has seen a large number of African American actors and playwrights as well as productions either based on racially-specific source material or presenting black actors in non-traditional (read: not all white) casting. There’s even a bit of hiphop culture building brands on the Broadway stage, with Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith among the producing team of the hit show and multi-Tony nominee Fela.

There’ve always been hit black shows on Broadway—the ones created by African-Americans, like The Wiz and such reviews as Bubbling Brown Sugar, as well as the all-black shows like Dreamgirls, written by white composers or created by white showmen who appreciated the musical brilliance of a people who have almost always been allowed to sing and dance their way into the public consciousness. But as for drama?  It’s been 50 years since Lorraine Hansberry’s ceiling- (and ground-) breaking A Raisin in the Sun, and though there’ve been a few lucky and talented African American playwrights represented with Broadway productions since then, only August Wilson had a sustained career there of late (not that playwrights of any race—Mamet? Neil Simon? Shakespeare?—can be said to have sustained Broadway careers these days!) Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks’ Top Dog/Underdog, in fact, was the only new African American play presented on Broadway in the past 10 years. Even then, roles by Adriane Lenox, for example, in Doubt, or the sometime arrival of a Denzel Washington or James Earl Jones sometimes kept black faces in the Broadway mix.

Now, after recent dramatic—and financially successful—seasons have showcased all-black renderings of On Golden Pond and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Color Purple adaptation, Diddy’s revival of A Raisin in the Sun, David Mamet’s fiery Race, Denzel back in an August Wilson revival—producers have noticed that when black faces appear on Broadway, black wallets seem to open up for them.

And perhaps that’s why there’s news about Samuel L. Jackson and Halle Berry bringing their Hollywood stardom to Broadway (like Denzel and Julia and Hugh and Nicole before them) in a production of Katori Hall’s celebrated new play The Mountaintop next season. There are also rumors abounding that Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith may be coming to Broadway as Stanley and Stella in an Emily Mann-directed (!) revivial of A Streetcar Named Desire, produced by Stephen Byrd, who also produced the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof revival with James Earl Jones and Terrence Howard and Anika Noni Rose a coupla seasons back. (I’d argue that Nicki Micheaux might make a more grounded and nuanced Stella, but that’s just me.) And I really wonder who they’d cast as Blanche DuBois…any suggestions? (Angela Bassett? Viola Davis? Audra McDonald?) All this news comes on the heels of the announcement that James Earl Jones will join Vanessa Redgrave in the upcoming Broadway production of Driving Miss Daisy (its first Broadway production!) And people are saying that Patti LaBelle may step into the shoes of Tony nominee Liliias White as Fela’s mother when White takes a break to tour her own show. Suzan-Lori Parks is also the book writer of an upcoming new Broadway musical detailing the life and times of superstar Ray Charles.

Black may be beautiful but apparently it’s pretty profitable too.

Playbill.com has more info about Will and Jada’s Streetcar, Patti LaBelle or Halle and Samuel L.

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GLEE: If I Cast Some Guest-Stars…

Yesterday I read that Javier Bardem will potentially be guest-starring on GLEE next season. He’s one in a growing list of celeb fans of the show who’ve either lobbied to be cast, been suggested by fan groups to Glee it up (a la Betty White on SNL) or just talked about while we all stand around the platinum-encrusted water cooler of discussion known as Industry Gossip.

During the first part of this past season, I was a HUGE “Gleek,” as the show’s rabid fans have been called, watching every week, DVR’ing, and re-watching, loving the show’s spiky mix of over-the-top pop, heartstring-tugging, and bitchy, witty one-liners. Any show that—in its first episode—cites Guys and Dolls and Beyonce, has a character use the word “irony,” and has its band of misfit characters harmonize Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” (far and away Journey’s best single and one of my all-time favorite songs) was destined for quick cancellation—but I loved it.

The second half of the season didn’t wow me as much as I’d hoped: theme episodes seemed a little too pre-determined; song choices (and performances—a Funky Bunch riff?) felt a little uninspired. There even seemed to be a dearth of really good and cutting Sue Sylvester material, almost as if the little show about high school outcasts felt somehow threatened by the mature mean girl on the set and sought to put her back in her (supporting actress) place for a little while. That said, when the show was good, it was really good: it even got me to appreciate Idina Menzel.

Which leads me to my next point: what really worked for me in the final few eps, more often than not, were the guest-stars.  Jonathan Groff, Lea Michelle’s Spring Awakening co-star, played the wonderfully named Jesse St. James with just the right amount of teen drama queen aloofness; Kristin Chenoweth returned as boozy April Rhodes; and best of all, Neil Patrick Harris played the bitter Bryan Ryan, falsetto-battling with Schuester in one of the best performances of the season. Harris would probably make a perfect Mr. Schu if he wasn’t already on a hit show, and if GLEE didn’t seem to need the glee coach to break into silly play-that-funky-music-white-boy-isms every so often (which Matthew Morrison, bless his Broadway-by-way-of-suburban-Cali soul, does so, um, energetically.)

So, in honor of the impending arrival of Bardem and the cute coupla appearances by Pink Lady Sandy (oops, I meant Olivia Newton-John), I’m making my picks for eventual GLEE guest stars:

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Links & HiJinks: New Roald Dahl, Duchovny…and Gaga’s (still) a Man?

Just some things I came across this week on the Internets that I found funny or interesting:

  • {New Roald Dahl?}: I love Dahl‘s stuff; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory‘s one the books that made me wanna be a writer; many of his brilliant short stories (which I found later) almost made me want to give up the craft. But I remained completely in thrall to Dahl’s mix of the mundane and the fantastic, and his way with unexpected twists of character and plot made me a fan for life. Now, in honor of Roald Dahl month (September 13—I also loved that he was a Virgo, like me), Penguin is publishing some “splendiferous” secrets of the great writer! Click here for more…

  • {Duchovny! Live!}: Californication stud David Duchovny‘s about to make his NY stage debut in Break of Noon, a new off-Broadway play by Neil LaBute, which, I think, is completely appropriate for Duchovny’s smarter-than-us, sorta-above-it-all acting style—not that there’s anything wrong with it; believe me, I’m a fan. Opening in October, more of the story here
  • {Gaga Goes Guyville?}: A site is reporting that Lady Gaga—the greatest pop star of the moment…Yeah, I said it!—is posing as a guy in a new fashion spread in Vogue Hommes Japan…If it’s not her, she’s definitely got a fraternal twin somewhere in the fashion community…See the pics and read the tale here
  • {On the Cover}: I’ve been recently dealing with some issues around the cover of my novel which comes out next summer. And probably because of that I’ve been paying even more attention lately to the covers of recent novels, just to see what’s out there, what’s working, what’s not working, etc…Came across the following cover and my mind exploded. How great is this:

Clean, evocative, a little scary, definitely catches one’s eye…to find out more about the book, click here

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Driving Miss Redgrave…right to the Tonys…

Talk about two theater giants sharing their gifts with the world…Two of my favorite actors, James Earl Jones, who in the past 5 years has done On Golden Pond and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof on Broadway, and Vanessa Redgrave, who just did Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking a coupla seasons back, will bring Driving Miss Daisy to Broadway this fall.

Interestingly, I feel like the role of Miss Daisy might have have been better suited to Vanessa’s sister, Lynn, who, sadly, passed away earlier this year.  That said, I’d see Vanessa Redgrave—and James Earl Jones—in anything, so…count me in.

Click here for the story.

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